Trump's Afghanistan Policy Is Clever and Unwise

Allowing the Pentagon to set troop levels protects the president politically when the war inevitably expands.

Get more tents and MREs ready.

Photographer: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s Afghanistan policy thus far consists of authorizing Defense Secretary James Mattis to send thousands more troops at his discretion, which Mattis intends to do. Politically, outsourcing the decision to the former general is clever, even brilliant -- in the short run. It insulates Trump from criticism if the move fails, and allows him to take credit if by some chance the troops bring greater stability.

In the long run, however, there’s a serious flaw in putting the Pentagon in charge of troop numbers. The military establishment has almost no incentive to draw back from fighting a war in progress, and tremendous incentive to step up engagement and efforts. The probable result is mission creep, a particularly grave risk in Afghanistan, where the U.S. is propping up a shaky regime that would probably collapse if U.S. troops were to withdraw.

QuickTake Afghanistan’s War

Before starting to worry about the dangers of a prolonged U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, you have to face a truly shocking fact: We are coming up on 16 years of U.S. presence there. In the near future, the U.S. will be deploying soldiers to Afghanistan who weren’t yet born in the fall of 2001, when the U.S. first invaded.

For purposes of comparison, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan took place in late 1979, and the Soviets left in 1989. The disaster of the first Anglo-Afghan war lasted from 1839 to 1842, and the second such war, more successful from British perspective, was from 1878 to 1880 -- after which the British withdrew essentially all their troops, exercising their influence indirectly. (A third conflict in 1919, sparked by Afghanistan’s declaration of independence, lasted just a month.)

That raises the obvious question: Why is the U.S. still there? Once it became clear during the George W. Bush administration that the U.S. lacked the capacity to transform Afghanistan into a functioning state, democratic or otherwise, why didn’t the U.S. give up its efforts?

Part of the reason is that the Taliban don’t have good reason to negotiate an agreement that would let the U.S. leave with some claim to have achieved “peace with honor,” whatever the contemporary version of that would look like. As far as the Taliban are concerned, the U.S. departure is inevitable, even if its timing is unknown. Much easier to wait out the Americans than to make a deal.

The other major reason is that no U.S. president wants to admit defeat on his watch. After seriously contemplating a full withdrawal at the beginning of his presidency, Barack Obama concluded that Saigon-style images of the fall of Kabul would not burnish his historical legacy, and would not help a Democratic successor look strong on national security.

Hence, the Obama administration’s de facto policy on Afghanistan was to hold the line. Obama’s team tried to augment forces enough to change the Taliban’s calculus. When that failed, they still didn’t withdraw, preferring to keep just enough troops in the country to hold Kabul and the surrounding areas. Consequently, Afghanistan certainly won’t be counted as an Obama administration success. But historians will surely see the failure there as belonging mostly to the Bush administration. Had Obama withdrawn, he could have been blamed by revisionists who would later say the war was winnable.

That’s why Trump’s approach is so politically attractive. Trump came to office without any military expertise or foreign policy credentials. So who, exactly, is going to complain about his relying on generals and former generals (like Mattis) to make crucial decisions about troop numbers?

By openly conferring decision-making authority on the Pentagon, Trump will also avoid being accused of ignoring the advice of his generals. And if some of his civilian advisers would prefer to see the Afghan war ended as a mark of America-first isolationism, Trump can credibly tell them that he is deferring to the true experts.

The fundamental drawback to this presidential outsourcing comes from the way it structures incentives over the long run. Put simply, the Pentagon will always ask for more. When would it ever be in the interests of the military establishment to have fewer troops and less capacity to fight a war in which it is engaged?

If Mattis doesn’t add as many troops as Trump lets him, then every disaster that occurs in Afghanistan could be blamed on insufficient troop numbers. If he maximizes troop numbers, Mattis won’t pay any appreciable political price. He’s not on any ballot or running for any office.

It’s the military’s job is to fight wars, and the more troops you have, the easier it is to do so. But the profound consequence of this trivial observation is that putting the military in charge of its own numbers is almost inevitably going to lead to substantial expansion of the mission.

Notice that expanding troop numbers in Afghanistan is different from just trying to hold Kabul and avoid total collapse. Adding more troops will probably lead to trying to take and hold at least some lost territory -- again, because that’s what the military does, and does very well.

It’s one thing to experience mission creep when your army hasn’t yet tried and failed to win the war. That’s what happened to the U.S. in Vietnam over the course of President Lyndon Johnson’s administration. It’s quite another to undergo mission creep when you’ve already learned the lessons of failure.

There’s no clean or simple solution for the U.S. in Afghanistan, and Trump isn’t to blame for the situation he inherited. Yet it is still a strategic mistake to put the Pentagon in charge of troop numbers. It’s just not a mistake that Trump will have to pay for politically in the foreseeable future.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net

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